Year in review: Contending with COVID-19

Call it 2020 vision. As we do when a year comes to a close, Realscreen is offering a look back at the major stories impacting the unscripted and non-fiction content industry ...
December 17, 2020

Call it 2020 vision.

As we do when a year comes to a close, Realscreen is offering a look back at the major stories impacting the unscripted and non-fiction content industry over the course of the past 12 months. This year, of course, offered more than its share of unprecedented challenges. Still, as you’ll see in these recaps, the industry met them with innovation and dedication, and continues to do so as 2021 approaches. For our first look back at 2020, we examine the impact of the coronavirus upon the non-fiction screen content business.

At the end of February — just a month after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” for the virus it had named COVID-19 — the film and TV industry was teetering on the brink of a shutdown.

On March 4, Cannes conference mainstay MIPTV confirmed it would be shelving its in-person 2020 market and moving online following a ban imposed by the French government on large gatherings. A few days later, on March 6, the City of Austin directed South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival to also pull the plug — its first cancellation in 34 years.

The next day, the WHO reported a grim milestone of 100,000 COVID-19 cases worldwide. On March 11, it would characterize the virus as a pandemic.

Like dominos, conferences and festivals — from CPH:DOX to NAB, Full Frame Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Hot Docs, Sheffield Doc/Fest and Edinburgh TV Festival, to name a few — were quickly forced to upend their deployment strategies, pushing organizers to choose between canceling, postponing or hastily shifting to an online model.

Media companies such as WarnerMedia, Discovery, NBCUniversal and Fox quickly axed live upfronts in the spring in favor of digital presentations.

Soon, all sectors of the industry were reeling from the disruption.

Producers — particularly small, independent outfits — were coming to grips with a new reality as measures to prevent the spread of the virus put largely all jobs on standby. The trend escalated dramatically in the coming months, leaving some of the industry’s most vulnerable — largely freelancers circulating in the ‘gig economy’ — without work.

Often out of the limelight, agents and PR professionals — integral cogs in the industry’s machine — juggled the needs of clients as the COVID-19 health crisis left no sector unaffected. For distributors, business was strong, but the outlook — depending on whether those companies were in television distribution or theatrical — remained uncertain.

Broadcasters and networks were left to fill slimming schedules as revenues and ad spend plummeted.

In Q1, ViacomCBS’s overall revenue slumped 6% and ad revenues fell 19% from the previous year. In April, UK pubcaster Channel 4 slashed its content budget by £150 million.

Discovery was one of a few networks to report a marginal revenue increase in the first quarter, but warned it was bracing for ad revenues to take a steep tumble in 2020. In May, ITV furloughed approximately 15% of its UK workforce after advertising revenues declined by 42% and the broadcaster was forced to shed £100 million from its production budget.

Meanwhile, with much of the world in lockdown, viewership climbed and SVOD adoption accelerated.

According to Forbes, Disney+ subscribers more than tripled between March 14 and March 16 compared to the same period the week prior. Netflix, meanwhile, saw a 47% increase in subscriber additions, the publication reported &#8212. However, new entrant Quibi was unable to draw in those eyeballs, attributing its eventual collapse in part to the pandemic, which flipped the mobile short form streamer’s model on its head.

In the midst of the disruption, a number of organizations rallied to offer financial support, from American Documentary to the BBC, ITV, Sony, BFI, Field of Vision, CBC, Netflix, Sundance Institute and Chicken and Egg Pictures. Many others followed suit and continue to do so, as the year reaches its close.

Before long, as pandemic management approaches in various territories brought reductions in numbers of cases, the film and TV industry revved up for a return to work.

Governments and organizations offered guidance on producing in a pandemic. In May, The Australian Screen Sector Task Force released COVID-Safe Guidelines. In June, Los Angeles County allowed film and TV production to commence once again, following the release of safety protocols.

With filming already underway on a rising number of unscripted and documentary projects, producers are navigating restrictions and safety protocols across regions while keeping the content pipeline churning. Even in the early days of the pandemic, various networks and production companies moved quickly to embrace remote production technologies and techniques, with several self-shot unscripted series providing viewers with an intimacy and authenticity that perhaps was missing from more “produced” series.

Driven by a desire to keep productions afloat and programming schedules full, many broadcasters are operating at full-tilt as ad spend shows signs of recovering. Film and TV distributors are seizing new technologies and shedding outdated business practices, while dealing with the cancellation of in-person festivals and tighter linear budgets.

SXSW — one of the first film festivals to be canceled at the beginning of the pandemic — recently announced it would be offering a digital experience as part of its 2021 event, to be held in March, as organizers work with the City of Austin and public health authorities on plans to bring festival-goers together in-person, joining the likes of the Sundance Film Festival and the myriad others embracing a hybrid model.

Thus, while much of 2021 remains uncertain, the outlook isn’t all grim as the non-fiction screen industry works to meet the rising demand for non-scripted content, fuelled in part by circumstances incurred by COVID-19, and regains its footing in a film and TV landscape reshaped by the pandemic.

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.